wilted flowers

Relationship Killers, Part 3: When All You See is the Bad

Have you ever been in a relationship where you wondered "Why am I so negative towards my partner?" Or maybe it's your partner who keeps being overly critical. What do you do when someone only sees the bad in you?

The Secret

Years ago, I came across Maria (not her real name!) over a couple of glasses of wine—or maybe it was rum and cokes.  Whatever!  I was at a point in my life where things were not going particularly well.  Maria was newly married and I congratulated her.  She accepted my congratulations with what seemed to be less than great enthusiasm.  I let it pass.  We were there to discuss work, not relationships.  So we discussed work. 

Maybe it was at the end the second glass of wine, or rum and coke, that she spilled the beans that she and her new husband were living separately.  They shared a two-bedroom apartment but now were each in separate parts of the apartment with separate bedrooms.  Usually people wait, what, a few years or at least a few months before splitting.  This couple had not even made it to the end of the first month.  I didn’t want to pry, but I couldn’t help myself.  I asked her what was wrong.  At first, she didn’t want to say.  I was thinking to myself, “This must be big.”  Finally, she spilled the beans.  

She had discovered something about her husband’s past that he had never divulged to her.  I wondered what it could be—he had AIDS?  He was gay?  He had murdered someone.  Nope.  He had committed what the legal system, at least, thought was a serious enough financial transgression for him to be convicted of a felony.  He did not go to prison, but he paid a major fine and the record of his felony would be with him forever. 

The future kids’ father would be a former convicted felon.  The news did not fit her conception of a husband, a father, or an upstanding citizen of their community, or any other she wanted to be a part of.  But what most irked her was not what he did, but his not having mentioned it to her before they got married.  Something like that you don’t forget.  So, he had lied by omission and she was through, or close to it.

Here’s a guy who screwed up twice, maybe more.  He fudged the books, or whatever it was, and he also failed to disclose it to his future and now present wife.  That’s pretty bad.  

And the chances are that during the course of YOUR relationship, you will discover bad things about your partner that you wished you didn’t know or wished would simply go away but they won’t. 

Researchers in psychology have found that negative information is far more powerful than positive information.  If you get positive information about your partner—they got a big bonus at work; they received a major promotion; they won an award—that information likely will make you happy and proud.  But chances are, it will recede into the deeper corners of your mind pretty quickly. 

Sometimes negative information that isn’t really all that bad is much more likely to stay at the forefront and to stick in your craw.  And if you have a certain kind of personality, you won’t be able to let go of it and may keep reminding your partner that it’s there and you are paying the price, as should they.

Why Am I So Negative?

The negativity bias can be a real relationship killer.  All the good things your partner has done may pale in comparison to the bad one or two or more.  Some people can let go of the negative information, or at least, let it recede from the surface.  Others can’t.  They may ask themselves, “Why am I so negative?” or “Am I just a negative person?” 

Or they may project their negativity onto their partner, blaming the partner for their negativity.  “I never used to be this way before I met you!”  The negativity bias applies to everyone, but it’s not everyone who just can’t let go.  

There are things that you should not and, if you want to stay sane, you cannot let go of.  If your partner is physically violent, emotionally abusive, an unreformed criminal, or has a serious addiction, you need to deal with these issues and do it now. 

But we all will learn negative information about our spouses—they turn out to nag more than you thought; they don’t shower as often as they should and it’s noticeable; they have flashes of temper; their eating habits drive you nuts.  Sometimes, you don’t find these things out until much later than you thought you should have.  

Or maybe you feel you don't so much hang on to the negative things about your partner.  Rather, you feel it is only your partner who hangs on to the negative things about you.  You both need to see beyond the negative.  If not, you have to help them.  Both partners need to think about how to make the relationship work.

Making Your Relationship Work When One of You Can’t Let Go of the Negative

The question is whether you can still make the relationship work.  If you can’t, you may find that your next relationship is not much different—only the thing that bothers you has changed. 

You need to find a way to accept that we are all screw-ups, in greater or lesser degree, and that living with another person means putting up with things that you often feel you should never have to put up with.  Chances are, your partner is thinking the same thing. 

Instead of going into a funk, at least try to take the negative information not as a relationship-killer but as a challenge.  

  • Can you find a way to change what bothers you?  
  • Can you find a way to live with it?  
  • Can you accept that we all have our not so minor flaws?  That’s what it means to be human.  And working on those flaws is also intrinsic to what makes us human.  If you can, work on the problem, and watch your relationship grow as you do.

If you'd like to learn more about how to deal with the annoyances that come with every relationship, read here:

This article is part of a series on relationship killers.


If you're interested in more information on unconscious thinking errors that can hurt your relationship, check out these articles:

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